Bullying is Broken

The word bullying is broken.  It may have been useful in the dark, distant past, but now it is causing more problems than it’s worth.

We’ve been taught to be wary of the results of bullying, particularly in the last few months when bully-induced teen suicides hit the headlines.  School districts across the country are being forced to come up with their plans for eliminating bullying.  Harsh punishments and zero-tolerance policies are rife.  This is where the difficulty begins.

The fundamental problem is one of definition.

Bullying is the broadest of broad terms – it covers an enormous range of actions and behaviours.  The definition is also different for different people.  If a student is to be suspended from school for bullying, it could be for the terrible act of repeated physical abuse, or it could be for excluding a child from a group of friends.  These are hardly the same thing, yet because they fall under the umbrella of bullying, they are equally punished.

Another issue is self-awareness due to the definition problem.  If a child doesn’t consider daily name-calling bullying while her principal does, she will quite rightly deny being a bully.  The principal will then assume that not only is the student a bully, she is a liar.  If a counselor starts a school-wide campaign to “beat bullying” and each student has a different definition of bullying, they will all be striving for different goals.

This may seem trivial, but consider the answers to the following questions asked at Baker Middle School today and yesterday.  (By the way, the 300 6th graders at Baker, in Troy, were an absolute joy to be around this week – thanks guys.)

Can bullying be accidental? – 35% said yes

Does bullying feel the same to everyone? – 50% said yes

Do some people deserve to be bullied? – 40% said yes

Is humiliating considered bullying? – 25% said yes

If you’re an educator, these numbers should be alarming.  We (and yes, I include myself here) have been spreading the message against bullying, but have not had a clue what the word really means to our kids.  I asked my 6th graders to give me examples of bullying.  These are their answers – they only had ten minutes to compile them…

Physical: pulling hair, slapping, jumping at your locker, strangling, shooting with an airsoft gun, bashing in the restrooms, ten second fights, slamming your locker, kicking, jumping, wedgies, choking, tripping, sitting on you, pushing in the snow, spitting, pinching, shaving eyebrows, pantsing, swirlies, headlocking, tackling, dumping in the trashcan.

Technological (cyberbullying): mean text messages, posting embarrassing photos, posting insulting videos, emailing bad stories, sending a computer virus, prank calls, looking at your files, deleting your files, mean comments on YouTube, creating hurtful Facebook groups.

Emotional: racism, hurtful jokes, pranks, swearing, following you home, tormenting, threats, gossiping, posting secrets in public, insulting, harassment, belittling, terrorizing, discouraging, shunning, making fun of your culture/disability/religion/personality/intelligence/hair/clothes, hurtful graffiti, ignoring, sarcasm, telling you Santa doesn’t exist, scaring, teasing, interrupting, arguing, taunting, bragging, threat letters, ding dong ditching, cheating on you, holding a grudge, ditching, death threats, stalking, sexual harassment, prejudice.

Other: stealing lunch money, blackmailing, stealing property, blaming for something you didn’t do, framing, making faces, throwing away your possessions, taking your homework, trespassing, having different expectations, stealing personal information, vandalism, messing up homework, stealing cheese, breaking glasses.

We need to be specific.

Using one broad brush is missing the point of this complex problem.  If we want kids to stop using Facebook to spread hateful thoughts, then we need to say that.  If we want kids to stop making fun of each other we need to say that.

I asked the 6th graders at Baker to ban the word and to challenge anyone who uses it – I’d like you to as well.  If you hear someone say bully or bullying, ask them to explain exactly what they mean so you can have a conversation where you’re on the same page.  If your newspaper is printing a story on bullying, send them a letter asking them to properly define the problem.  Send a Tweet to CNN when they are covering a bullying story.

I’ve asked the 6th graders to leave comments here and would love to hear your thoughts as well.

7 Responses to Bullying is Broken

  1. Emily December 17, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Teachers in many schools can’t get sixth graders to write 50 words about anything. And these kids came up with a 200-word list of ways to be mean to others in 10 minutes. How sad.

  2. Anonymous December 17, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    Shortly after I finished my student teaching, I heard that one of my students (normally a very well-behaved kid) had been suspended for bringing a knife to the bus stop and showing it to some boys who had been picking on him. I couldn’t help but wonder what anyone had learned from the situation. The kid who had been harassed probably spent his day off school upset and frustrated, knowing fully that nothing was being done to get to the root of the problem and that he’d have to face those kids again, this time with them having the satisfaction of escaping unpunished for whatever bullying they were doing. It’s very likely the victim was bullied even more afterwards for “frontin” and trying to be tough.

    When it comes to combating bullying, a punitive system based on individual instances does not even come close to solving the real issue. Bullying is completely cultural and the black and white/right and wrong answers are not always clear. Zero tolerance policies are not anti-bullying policies.

    • Matt December 17, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

      Having received no support, the kid turned to self-defence and got punished. A sad story.

  3. bestjosh December 18, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    When I talk to the kids at my school, bullying is a word that makes them completely shut down. I tried to speak to them about the way they were treating another student, and the only one who listened was the student arguing with me that what they were doing was not bullying because, “They were just making fun of him.” She did not see it as bullying because they weren’t physically hurting him. It is sad. Where do we go from here?

    • Matt December 18, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

      We have to be specific. “You’re making fun of him and it is hurting him – a lot. You need to stop.” As you say, kids shut down. You’re not using vocabulary that makes sense to them and you’re allowing for an argument – “that’s not bullying”. Be specific and there can’t be an argument.


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